LGBTQ+ activists in Azerbaijan are raising the alarm that members of Azerbaijan’s queer community — especially transgender women — feel increasingly unwelcome on public transportation and often experience incidents of harassment. It has become a place where transphobic stares, harassment, and threats of violence are rampant. However, experts say that these reported incidents are just the tip of the iceberg.
Stories of harassment
Karmen, 19, was sexually harassed on the Baku subway in August 2022. Groped by a man once on the train, Karmen, shocked by what was happening [the man continued to rub his private parts after grabbing Karmen by her waist], did not call or ask for help. “As soon as the doors [of the train] opened at the next spot, I threw myself onto the platform and walked away without looking at the man’s face. It was disgusting, I felt nauseous,” recalled Karmen in an interview with Nafas (Breath in English) Azerbaijan’s LGBTI Alliance, a non-profit organization working on LGBTQ+ rights since 2012.
Derya, 34, faced physical abuse on public transportation some years ago. Recalling her experience, Derya explains that no one reacted to what was happening. Derya never reported or complained to the authorities out of fear of retaliation. “It is as if this is how it should be. At the time, I had not fully changed my appearance and looked more like a gay man. I went through that experience simply because I had an earring,” Derya said in an interview with Global Voices.
As such, trans women often prefer not to use buses or subways as means of transportation for safety reasons and rely on taxis instead.
Derya prefers to stay home when she does not have to leave for work and does not use public transportation at all, though when she does, taxis are Derya’s preferred means of transportation. According to Derya, taxi drivers are aware that trans women often prefer taxis and often use the same taxi drivers. They even pay several times more than the usual charge because of this. “This is why taxi drivers also prefer working with us. I, too, received similar offers, but in this case, I often lose time while waiting for the same driver [to complete his previous ride], so instead, I use Bolt or Uber,” explained Derya.
Hayat Alisoy, 23, also prefers getting around in a taxi due to harassment on public transit. In an interview with Global Voices, Hayat explains that “people use inappropriate language about my appearance, offering sex, and behave aggressively towards me. In order to protect my mental and physical health, I often use taxis.”
Although taxi services may seem like a safe way out, it does not always prevent harassment against trans women.
Derya says that sometimes, when taxi drivers see they are trans women, they switch tones and become inappropriate. They ask questions such as “Are you not a woman?” “How much do you cost?” and so on. “This mentally damages me. When this happens, we are left with two choices: either staying silent or speaking up, especially when it becomes a recurring pattern. In the case of the latter, it ends with a conflict,” explains Derya.
In some cases, taxi drivers face consequences for their actions. Tural Yadigar, a taxi driver in Baku, shared that although he personally has not experienced any problems with trans women passengers, he has heard from a colleague that one taxi driver working for a private taxi company has been reprimanded after swearing at a trans woman customer and refusing to drive her. After the customer complained to the company and blocked the driver on other taxi apps, his ratings dropped, and he can no longer use the company account.
Common threats and global ratings
According to Vahid Aliyev, an LGBTQ+ rights activist who closely monitors discrimination and violence against trans citizens in the country, among common threats trans women face on public transportation are gender-based verbal harassment, discriminatory and offensive slurs, physical violence, discrimination, and limited access to public transport. Aliyev notes that although these things happen on a regular basis, only a fraction of incidents are reported.
“Only one or two cases were publicized this year. Specific data on harassment is very limited, but it does not mean this is not a problem, in fact, the situation is worrying,” explained Aliyev, adding that hostility towards trans women on public transportation is increasing, which in turn negatively affects their overall mental health and access to basic services.
Those who have survived violence and harassment are often reluctant to document incidents and complain because of the climate of impunity in previously reported cases of violence and harassment, explains Aliyev. “Trans people do not believe that law enforcement agencies will be sensitive to the issue, take their complaints seriously and prosperity address them.”
From the legal point of view, harassment in public spaces is not criminalized in Azerbaijan. Lawyer Samad Rahimli explains that perpetrators only bear criminal responsibility in cases of harassment against minors. There are overall three ways to settle harassment cases, noted Rahimli. “The first option to go about harassment is to take the perpetrator to court. The second option is to view the case of harassment in the framework of administrative offense — if the harassment occurred in a public space, it could be considered petty hooliganism, and the perpetrator thus can be held liable for an administrative offense. The third option is to complain to the institutions managing public transportation [Baku Transportation Agency, Baku Metro and Azerbaijan Railways].”
However, adding that these legal steps are lengthy, Rahimli suggests that a solution may be to view street harassment as a separate administrative offense and responsibility. “Agencies in charge of management of public transport should have a guide on harassment in order to prevent harassment.”
Vahid Aliyev agrees that raising public awareness of harassment may be a solution, as well as adopting an urgent anti-discrimination bill, training public transportation workers and law enforcement agencies about sensitivity, and, if necessary, publicizing incidents of abuse. “Most importantly, however, legal protection must be strengthened in order to ensure the safety of the trans community in Azerbaijan,” adds Aliyev.
In Europe, a number of major cities, including London, Berlin, Vienna, Barcelona, and Cologne, are working to ensure inclusive public transport for all in the face of the growing discrimination against queer people relying on public transport.
Therefore, there are examples of measures to be taken. But so far, there are no signs of willingness to change from the Azerbaijani government. If anything, the situation around LGBTQ+ people’s rights and protection remains dismal in Azerbaijan. This is reflected in a recent ILGA Europe, an international non-governmental organization advocating for LGBTQ+ rights and freedoms, Azerbaijan ranked last in the organization’s Rainbow Index consecutively for three years in a row.
This article was produced for the Global Voices during QueeRadar’s Mentorship Program.